Monday, October 11, 2010

The Ocean Blue

Columbus Day is not the holiday it once was.

A century ago, Columbus was the toast of many a school, and his importance in the grand scheme of things  could not be understated. He discovered the "New World," a strange name for a place that had always been there. He opened up a route to trade in the Caribbean and brought Western sensibilities to the "barbarous tribes" of the region. He brought religion, he brought technology, and he brought commerce, and lifted the natives up from their primitive state; those who fought against the changes, were backward, and often had to be destroyed.

In more recent times, under the agitation and encouragement of the surviving native tribes of North America, a movement has been afoot to set the record straight about Christopher Columbus and those who came after him. Columbus, far from being the noble explorer, was by turns the greedy impresario, a charlatan looking for easy riches, and the world's worst seaman, completely inept when it came to navigation. His finding the Caribbean was a happenstance, a dangerous one, as it turned out, for those who lived there peacefully. Columbus and his retainers began an unending series of depredations against native tribes in the Americas, leading to their wholesale destruction in some cases, and their marginalization in others.

There can be no doubt, as we look through the lens of history, that the day Columbus stepped off his ship and into the lives of the natives of The Bahamas, was a seminal moment in history. The native tribes of the Americas, safe in their isolation, with fully formed civilizations of their own, were now intruded on by strange, alien visitors, who brought with them sights unseen, things unimagined, and concepts utterly foreign to the self-assured tribes. They welcomed the visitors at first, perhaps thinking of them as gods, or perhaps merely long-lost cousins; their hospitality was repaid in disease, rape, slavery, and death. From those tenuous beginnings, the influence of Western culture spread, a virus engulfing and infecting everything in its path, rendering once proud nations of natives impotent to stop them. No matter what the reason, the infiltration of Europeans into the vast and open continents of the Americas altered the course of history irrevocably, and lead to death on a scale unimaginable, even in the great wars that would be fought in the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries.

October 12th, 1492 is a bittersweet day, depending on what side of the divide you are on. If you are Italian, Columbus, native son of Genoa, brought great pride in his accomplishment. If you are from Spain, Columbus represents one of the high-water marks of Spanish domination of the seas, and Europe. If you are a modern native of one of the many South or Central American countries, you have him to thank for your existence. If you are a member of any tribe of North America, there can be only bitterness and betrayal. If you are American, you got here because of what he did.

Let us not belabor the issues, because the history of the "New World" is fraught with pitfalls; the events that sprang forth from it are so wide and varied and divisive, that to bring coherence and consensus is virtually impossible. I sit here, now, a product of a nation built on the backs of natives who were forced from their homes, exterminated in large numbers, and robbed of their existence as a people. My success as an American comes at the price of so many who came before me, and I cannot undo, to any sufficient degree, what was done. I can only try and move forward, and as I do, remake my nation into one that accepts what it did, is genuinely sorry for what it has done, and makes whatever reparations it can. In the meantime, I can work to understand what Columbus' voyage meant to America as a nation, and mourn for all that was lost because of it. Instead of celebration, may Columbus Day become a time of reflection,  when we seek understanding and make peace with a troubled past.

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